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Optometrist Physician Status Statement Corrected, Risks Continue with AOS Suit

July 3, 2012

On stage at the House of Delegates June 29 to discuss the seriousness of the concerns posed by a judge’s statement that optometrists “are not physicians,” are from left, past AOA President Joe Ellis, O.D., Assistant Director, Regulatory Policy & Outreach Rodney Peele; Washington Office Director Jon Hymes; Special Counsel Wayne Henry; Associate Director, Advocacy and Affiliate Outreach Brian Reuwer and Third Party Center Director Lendy Pridgen.

Following action by AOA’s House of Delegates and outreach to other organizations by the AOA, a federal judge has agreed to correct statements in court documents that say optometrists “are not physicians.” The corrected statement now reads, “Optometrists are professionals who perform eye exams and check for vision problems and diseases, but they are not medical doctors (M.D.s).”

In response to presentations by AOA Special Counsel Wayne Henry, O.D., and AOA’s Advocacy Group in the AOA House of Delegates on June 29, the House approved two substantive motions reaffirming the AOA’s commitment to defend the status of optometrists as physicians in federal law. Both motions passed unanimously, with 2,075 votes cast in favor.

The first substantive motion calls for the AOA Board of Trustees “to reaffirm and defend the physician status of optometrists by any and all available means.”

The second substantive motion calls upon the American Optometric Society (AOS) to join the AOA in petitioning a federal judge to correct his June 12, 2012, order stating optometrists “are not physicians.”

That statement was included in a summary judgment order issued by U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz in a lawsuit filed by the AOS against the American Board of Optometry (ABO).

The AOA was alarmed that one of the outcomes of the AOS/ABO lawsuit could be a statement in federal court that potentially undermines years of effort to advance and defend the standing of the optometry profession under federal law.

The AOA is pleased to announce that, in keeping with AOA’s outreach efforts, the AOS requested that Judge Matz correct the statement that optometrists “are not physicians.” Judge Matz’s ruling now states that optometrists “are not medical doctors (M.D.s).”

AOA leadership termed the move by AOS to correct the statement as, “one step in the right direction of protecting the physician status of optometrists under federal law, which should be of paramount importance to all optometrists. “

AOA President Ron Hopping, O.D., MPH, said the two votes, representing the unanimous voice of the House of Delegates, demonstrated widespread concern in the profession about the consequences of the lawsuit and the lawsuit’s potential to set back decades of successful advocacy by the AOA to advance the profession. The lawsuit trial is scheduled to start next week. AOA Special Counsel Wayne Henry is still concerned with AOS tactics in this suit. “Unfortunately, the risk is still present that actions in this trial could compromise optometry’s status of equal treatment within the mainstream of health care.”

“We are gratified that the court documents have been corrected, but we remain concerned that the topic of optometrists’ hard-won status as physicians surfaced at all,” Dr. Hopping said. “The AOA’s Advocacy Group is working hard to ensure there is no residual damage to our profession from this ill-advised episode.”

Immediate Past President Dori M. Carlson, O.D., has noted, “The classification of optometrists as physicians under federal statute is one of the AOA’s most significant accomplishments of the past quarter century. It is the AOA’s view that physician status underpins all of AOA and AOA affiliates’ efforts to maintain equality of access to patients. The AOA will continue to vigorously reaffirm and defend that physician status, and calls upon all optometrists and optometric organizations to do the same.”

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